In Transit

I. A Sentimental Journey

Embarking on a journey means boarding a train. You sit by a window, leaning on a dusty glass (do not lean on glass, it’s dirty!) staring at the trees flying by, the wires going up and down, the thundering noise of a passing train, the tattered stations, towns, and villages, the names that fade from your memory; the well-known routes and the realization that you have seen only a small bit of that road. How would the final stop look like? The intimidating and yet thrilling stories about not getting out of a train or falling asleep and finding yourself in a depot or staying on a subway train after a final stop. Even though for more than 20 years I mostly rode buses and cars, these images still haunt my dreams: missing or forgetting my stop, finding myself in an unfamiliar part of a town, or even arriving at some central station, a strange hybrid of a Moscow vokzal and a German Hauptbahnhof.

I always travel in my dreams, sensing both the freedom and danger of being on a road more vividly than in real life. Sometimes I get lucky to have this poignant experience in real life when wandering alone, -not as a tourist but as a nobody – through one of my beloved cities (New York, London, and Jerusalem); sometimes I manage to see the world through a music album, a book, or a movie; sometimes they even change my perception of a real city. After reading Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, I could not – and did not want to – shake off the feeling of being inside his novel during my next visit to London. While recognizing the familiar Tube stations – Knightsbridge, Earl’s Court, or Blackfriars – I kept on seeing their strange inhabitants in my mind’s eye; and when I stumbled across the stalls at Portobello Market being set up, I knew I was looking at the Floating Market from London Below. London was always receptive to my literary and musical allusions, readily gracing me with the joy of recognizing the places and locations of my dreams.

I remember having the vague yearning for journeys since I was little, dreaming about unknown places, deep forests, and mysterious lands. One day, in the early 1990s, I suddenly got a glimpse into my imaginary world. It was a short fragment from a TV program: a man and a little girl ride on a train, look out the window, roll it down, lean out, peek outside – and suddenly, the camera soars up, until we can no longer see their faces; the train crawls along the river and gradually dissipates in the black and white landscape. Stunned, I wrote down the name of this director, so that I would never miss this film: Wim Wenders, Alice in the Cities. When Wenders’s movies were finally screened in Moscow (it happened 3-4 years later) I was amazed to see how inherently close they were to my own vision and fantasies. The geometry of roads, the endless landscapes, the black and white aesthetics – all of these things made me extremely happy. I watched the whole retrospective then, and although I fell utterly in love with Der Himmel über Berlin / Wings of Desire, I also kept on thinking about another Wenders’s movie, Im Lauf der Zeit aka Kings of the Road (though I prefer the original German title ‘In the course of time’). It was an epic meditative piece, with the back and white wilderness, with “almost every frame <…> resolute, clear, and glowing, like a window rinsed clean by rain;” (*) the almost-absent plot, the quiet camaraderie of movie’s heroes, and the mighty accompaniment of guitars and saxophones, so naturally embedded in Wenders’ landscapes. Even though many aspects of this film were inaccessible for my 19-year-old self, I intuitively sensed its depth and significance; but I had to grow up to appreciate it.

Some things are better seen in black and white; by missing colors, you gain fuller meaning, by seeing emptiness between the lines you let your mind wander through some unexplored valleys.  Likewise, music can be fragmentary and sketchy, and yet imbue your heart with the joy of empathy and understanding. When I recently heard “Low,” the 1977 album by David Bowie, I was enchanted by the unusual, unconventional narrative formed by its song fragments and the wordless compositions. Of course, it took me a while to start fully appreciating the magic of this album; it fascinated me but remained evasive for any interpretation – that is, my own perception, and not the circumstances of Bowie’s life, which I studied diligently through his interviews. Listening to Low for the first time was somewhat similar to the experience of Ransom, a hero of “The Space Trilogy” by C.S. Lewis, as he makes his first step on the surface of a new world (“He gazed about him, and the very intensity of his desire to take in the new world at a glance defeated itself. He saw nothing but colors—colors that refused to form themselves into things. Moreover, he knew nothing yet well enough to see it: you cannot see things till you know roughly what they are”). Suddenly, I realized that these songs could be accompanied by black and white imagery – and immediately the landscapes from Kings of the Road came to my mind. Everything fell into place, right up to the year when the album was recorded, and when the film came out. 1976, the year I was born.

II. A mystical journey  

If you shut your eyes and are a lucky one, you may see at times a shapeless pool of lovely pale colours suspended in the darkness; then if you squeeze your eyes tighter, the pool begins to take shape, and the colours become so vivid that with another squeeze they must go on fire. But just before they go on fire you see the lagoon. This is the nearest you ever get to it on the mainland, just one heavenly moment; if there could be two moments you might see the surf and hear the mermaids singing. (J.M. Barrie, “The Mermaids’ Lagoon.” Peter Pan)

Many of Wenders’s films give us a glimpse into this “one heavenly moment,” when another world opens up in front of our eyes, a moment that you might be lucky to sense – maybe even as an adult. Sometimes there is a need to distance ourselves from familiar spaces in order to reach the pinnacle of this ecstatic feeling: we experience it when flying above the train in Alice in the Cities, or wandering, along with a protagonist, around a strange house full of unknown passages, with sublime music coming out of its depths (Lisbon Story); or looking at the divided city of Berlin through a gaze that transcends all borders and walls (Wings of Desire). Or following two strangers on a journey without any material goal – just moving, living through space and time, overcoming grief, or facing your demons. Wenders’s Kings of the Road is a three-hour meditation, an endless ride through the forlorn and shattered towns, featuring abandoned movie theaters as well as passersby in different stages of desperation.  

Throughout the film, Wenders spills a few hints that make us doubt the deceptive realism of this story, sometimes in form of special lighting, a twilight view of Bruno’s truck, or a quick glimpse of the clouds seen through the sunroof. These clues also surface t

Throughout the film, Wenders spills a few hints that somehow make us question the deceptive realism of this story: is it a special lighting, a twilight view of Bruno’s truck, or a quick glimpse of the clouds seen through the sunroof? Or are we suspecting something when meeting Bruno, an enigmatic man, always on a go, always suspended in time, devoid of any personal history? One of the keys lies in a poignant scene when the heroes take a motorcycle ride to the site of Bruno’s childhood: his house turns out to be completely empty and abandoned, stranded on an island, with dark windows – just like in one of the dream sequences in Bergman’s Wild Strawberries.  And so Bruno is a King of the Road, or more precisely, a genius loci, roaming freely, without any ties, goals, or agenda. Robert, on the other hand, is very real and ordinary; but he abandons his old life and the earthly belongings: his car, his things, his clothes in “a move that may be either a botched suicide attempt or a dramatic jettison from his old life using his Volkswagen Beetle as an escape pod.” (*) Robert joins Bruno, who clearly becomes his guide in this new reality; following the logic of a myth or a magic tale, the travelers endure various trials, such as a descent into hell that takes a form of a derelict coal mine, with looming and scary silhouettes of pipes and metal constructions. There, Robert, who was seeking death in the beginning, has to face it again, when meeting a distraught man, crushed by grief.

Kings of the Road resists the usual conventions of film narrative – watching an action-packed 3-hour film can be a challenge but here it feels natural; it is a flow of time, a glimpse into someone’s life, a window into another world, where the feelings are conveyed by glances and music, rather than words and events. To appreciate and experience this movie to the full extent you need to watch it with a certain degree of unfocused attention – and hopefully, you will be able to feel its rhythm, to live through these days and nights, along with Bruno and Robert. Enchanted, amazed by these landscapes, we are surrounded by light and silence, the elements that tell us more about the heroes than their dialogues. “It’s an almost alchemical thing, this accrued intensity of feeling, and it’s one Wenders harnesses so effectively that by the end of the three hours the viewer spends with Bruno and Robert, the simple way each uses their body while singing along to a song as they drive <…> can seem transcendent.”” (*)

So, why combine Wenders’s film and Bowie’s Low? Because in my opinion, both of these pieces require a special viewing or listening technique that makes you live through them, to be immersed as deeply as their creators meant them to be. It took me twenty years to appreciate Kings of the Road in full; with Bowie, I also spend many years knowing about him, being curious and somehow avoiding his music. I heard about Low before, loved “Sound And Vision,” and was really curious about this album; needless to say, my first attempts were completely unsuccessful, I could not grasp the meaning of these harsh short song fragments and abandoned it without even getting to the second half. When I finally listened to Low properly, without distractions, it felt like a revelation, breathtaking and completely incomprehensible. But even before I descended into the depths of this album, I knew that it was a portal, a door into a different musical dimension, where all meanings were conveyed in a new language (as both Bowie and Eno admitted). I knew I witnessed Barrie’s lagoon, this was it, or, as David sang on his other mystical album, “one magical moment…. from where dreams are woven.”

III. A Mind Journey

To every man, in his acquaintance with a new art, there comes a moment when that which before was meaningless first lifts, as it were, one corner of the curtain that hides its mystery, and reveals, in a burst of delight which later and fuller understanding can hardly ever equal, one glimpse of the indefinite possibilities within. (C.S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet)

In Kings of the Road, we see Bruno and Robert constantly moving around, and at the same time, being surrounded by their own walls, each of them trapped by their inability to convey their suffering (as Wenders once noted, his films always “have dealt with alienation. It’s because that’s what I saw all along, it is what I knew best from my own life.” (*)) And with all the freedom of the road movie, our travelers do come across an impassable obstacle, the border between West and East Germany, thus marking the presence of this invisible scar that splits the country in two. David Bowie’s Low is built around an image of a person that chooses voluntary seclusion, only observing things with his mind’s eye, behind drawn curtains; and yet, this universe is endless because “instead of receiving the whole world as his home he tends to create a micro-world inside himself.” (*) Partly recorded in a German studio overlooking the Berlin Wall, this album explores the concept of a border, and the image of a Wall will haunt David’s songs for a while; in Low, we feel its looming presence in the instrumental half of the album, such as “Weeping Wall” and especially “Subterraneans.”

In “Subterraneans” we hear the distant voices and a mournful saxophone, with all sounds muffled, blurred, blocked; the Wall is a slash, a cut that splits families, an everlasting tragedy that cannot (or could not, at that time) be overcome; being eternally separated, people are weeping over their fate. We can also perceive this composition as a cry for help, since “Subterraneans” is a reflection of David’s darkest years of drug addiction, desperation, and mental instability; as he noted during one of the 2002 shows, “it probably meant as much as anything else I did at the time.” (*) In 1976, his decision to leave everything behind and start a new life in Europe led him to the divided and torn city of Berlin; paradoxically, this place became a protective cocoon for Bowie, or, as he admitted in 1977, his “womb of Berlin – and it was a womb because of the Wall – and I guess it was all psychological to go there, I needed <it>…” (*) And so Low is a journey of pain, grief, and recovery; by choosing this path, just like the characters of Neverwhere, the hero has to go through the threatening darkness that drains his energy and strength. That is why Bowie’s voice on this album is so quiet, these are the vocals of an old and tired man, so drastically contrasting his young and boyish look.

Breaking with all of his previous albums, Bowie chooses non-narrative forms, the songs that fade out in the mid-sentence (“Breaking Glass,” “What in the World,” “Sound and Vision”), enigmatic non-songs (“A Speed of Life,” “A New Career In a New Town”), and epic meditative instrumentals (“Warszawa,” “Art Decade,” etc.). All of them display stilled emotions, strange repetitions, glossolalia, sometimes nearing word salad, and the absence of openings and finales. And yet, the density of these fragments is overwhelmnig; even these scarce words immerse you into a scene, or a mood, sometimes more coherent than long songs from Bowie’s earlier work. For example, a terrifying “Breaking Glass” reminds me of a sequence from a horror movie, with the ending edited out (“Don’t look / At the carpet / I drew something awful on it / See.”). Dreading to find out about the finale, we are left with the picture fading out, as the album races into the next track (“What In the World”) that might or might not be connected to the previous story. Of all Low, it captivates me most of all, because of its crazy rhythm and strange sounds, its opacity, and its depth – as Chris O’Leary has brilliantly noted, it “doesn’t feel brief, but seems to deepen and expand as it proceeds, disclosing new surfaces each time it’s played.” (*) Packed with meanings and moods, it can be seen as a musical absurdist vignette or, again, as a compressed entity – and I tend to believe the latter, especially because Bowie and his 1978 band demonstrated that it could be unpacked into a slower and more conventional live version.

Low is an unstoppable movement as well as an entranced state of observation; a train of thought racing through the depths of mind, never stopping or slowing down – even a seemingly subdued “Always Crashing in the Same Car” is filled with the same fierce energy. The protagonist’s inner gaze is made even more powerful by the seclusion, he is peering through the walls, from the inside and the outside. Just like Wenders’s heroes, he is both free and imprisoned; the wall is here, the door is closed but the portal, created by his new musical language, is wide open, showing you a glimpse of the universe’s splendor. To experience the utter freedom, Bruno and Robert only have to detach from their previous lives and follow the road; to encounter the prophetic inspiration, you need to guide your gaze into your soul, and the revelation will come. That’s why in “Sound and Vision” we are moments away from a poetic awakening; of course, it can only happen outside of a song after the final chords fade out (“I will sit right there / Waiting for the gift of sound and vision / Drifting into my solitude”).

The hero has multiple faces – “What in the World” is a great example – constantly changing appearances, flickering lights and colors, evading any direct interpretations (as noted by O’Leary, “Bowie’s tone lurches from sympathy to numbness, sometimes in the course of single line” (*)). This evasiveness, in my opinion, indirectly resembles the nature of the Ziggy Stardust album, even though during the Berlin Trilogy era Bowie distinctly distanced himself from his earlier work. Still, I see how both albums played with the angles and POVs, and how these changes marked in Ziggy by intonations and compositional techniques are fulfilled in Low, where instead of the playful and camp ambiguity, we are overwhelmed by a multitude of voices – so many that eventually, they dissipate into the absence of lyrics. However, this does not mean that the narrator disappears – on the contrary, I can hear his voice even more distinctly in the non-songs, like the transitional “A New Career in a New Town” that concludes the turbulent Side One and a sad and serene “Warszawa” that opens Side Two.

In one of the recent interviews, Brian Eno, Bowie’s co-author on Low, Heroes, and The Lodger, said that he often prefers writing “non-narrative” music, just like the impressionist paintings where”the picture spread out to be an all-over experience <…> I love Mona Lisa but sometimes I wish I could just look out the window and see that landscape.” (*) The final part of Low is a curious combination of Eno’s soundscapes and Bowie’s tunes and unearthly words, where the initial propelling energy of this album spreads around and fills the whole space. Just like a rocket that first dashes upward, and then soars in orbit, we are now seeing the world from above, from a bird’s eye view, with a certain degree of detachment and yet with a gripping sense of compassion. Because no one can say that “Warszawa,” the central instrumental track, lacks a feeling – on the contrary, it is bristling with colors and emotions, with scenes that each of us can visualize so easily. I see a sea coast and distant cries; I see the twilight sky and a dark forest; I see a slender figure of a woman peering into a distance. On the album, it is a destination; on a 1978 tour, it is an entrance into the magic world of Low and Heroes: this composition always opened the Isolar II concerts, thus immersing the audience in a unique and powerful universe of a new word and sound.

P. S. The cover photo is by Gabriel Menchaca on Unsplash

Katya Neklyudova, 2021